Given its controversial nature, numerous biblical arguments have been raised against the doctrine of limited atonement. At the same time, most objections generally revolve around several biblical phrases and texts. Do these verses undermine limited atonement? Since the Bible is God’s Word, answering this question forces believers to examine each passage carefully. After all, Christians are obligated to develop doctrinal truth from Scripture, not read their beliefs into the text. The extent of the atonement must be determined from carefully handling the Word of God.
A. “All” and “World”
The Bible includes numerous texts using phrases including “all” and “the world.” The oft-quoted John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Many other examples could be cited, but these verses do appear on the surface to teach Christ dying for all of humanity.
Nevertheless, each passage needs to be understood within its own context. While interpreting each of these texts individually is beyond the limits of this analysis, properly examining these statements demonstrate that they do not conflict with limited atonement. David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas explain the usage of such phrases:
One reason for the use of these expressions was to correct the false notion that salvation was for the Jews alone. Such phrases as ‘the world,’ ‘all men,’ ‘all nations,’ and ‘every creature’ were used by the New Testament writers to emphatically correct this mistake. These expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (i.e., He died for Jews and Gentiles alike) but they are not intended to show that Christ died for all men without exception (i.e. He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every lost sinner).
In a work exhaustively examining these verses, John Owen concluded, “in no one place wherein it is used in this business of redemption, it [the word ‘world’] is or can be taken for all and every man in the world.” Later he added, “it is nowhere affirmed in Scripture that Christ died for all men or gave himself a ransom for all men, much less for all and every man.” None of these biblical passages deny limited atonement.
B. Isaiah 53:6
The prophet Isaiah prophesied about the future atoning work of Christ: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Millard Erickson comments on this verse, “This passage is especially powerful from a logical standpoint. It is clear that the extent of sin is universal; it is specified that every one of us has sinned. It should also be noticed that the extent of what will be laid on the suffering servant exactly parallels the extent of sin. It is difficult to read this passage and not conclude that just as everyone sins, everyone is also atoned for.”
Is this the conclusion one should draw? The beginning of the verse says “all we like sheep have gone astray.” Who are the “we” spoken of here? Erickson assumes it is all of humanity since sin is universal. Nevertheless, this verse should not be severed from its covenantal context. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as God’s sheep (Ps 23, Isa 40:10-11). Whereas their own shepherds had failed them, God promised to become their shepherd (Ezek 34). He fulfilled this promise in Jesus Christ (John 10:1-18). Therefore, the “we” is clearly God’s covenant people. Just a few verses later, Isaiah explicitly states, “he [Christ] was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isa 53:8b, emphasis added). While his people had gone astray, God laid on Christ the iniquity and transgression of his rebellious people. Furthermore, Jesus spoke of his role as the shepherd of his wayward sheep:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11-15).
Jesus lays down his life for his sheep. He will loose none of those whom the Father gives him, giving his life for them. Referring to his atoning work, Isaiah 53:5 actually supports limited atonement.
David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 46.
John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), 193.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 847.